How to Live Forever: Estate Planning and Nonprofit Legacies

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

In a recent New York Times article, we discovered that a divorced, childless Holocaust survivor did not create a will, and thereby potentially passed along an estimated $40 million estate to the City of New York. Lacking a direct next-of-kin or any surviving family, the estate of Roman Blum will end up at New York City’s Department of Finance where it will be stored for three years waiting for a Blum relative to claim it. If that doesn’t happen, the $40 million will then go to the state comptroller’s office of unclaimed funds, where it will join an estimated $12 billion worth of accounts that have languished there since 1943.

As consultants to nonprofits, we can’t help but see Mr. Blum’s case as a huge loss for the nonprofit sector and especially for Jewish causes that could have benefitted from his wealth. Was Mr. Blum properly educated about estate planning and planned giving? Was he aware how much societal benefit could come from his considerable fortune? As a Holocaust survivor and fiercely devoted friend and local businessman, Mr. Blum could have left his estate to his local synagogue or JCC, could have designated the funds to help other survivors, could have pledged the estate to Israel-based causes; instead, his money is now caught in limbo, unable to do any good in the world for lack of a signed piece of paper and a misguided belief that each of us will live on forever. How did this happen?

Starting the Conversation about Planned Giving

We have long contended that planned giving must be a significant tool in every nonprofit’s fundraising toolbox, yet today we still see a disheartening reluctance to address this important philanthropic priority by Jewish nonprofits of all shapes and sizes. Nonprofit leaders seem hesitant to discuss this timely topic with their aging donor bases, despite the many organizational benefits that may come out of these decisive conversations. In fact, in the Jewish charitable arena, planned giving is acknowledged to be among the most critically important, but often overlooked, aspects of a Jewish nonprofit’s “typical” fundraising strategy. Why did this happen?

Despite the fact that charitable bequests accounted for $23 billion in charitable giving in 2011 (the most recent GivingUSA data available), even the most seasoned development professionals can become skittish around the topic of estate planning and legacy giving. Fundraisers falsely believe that approaching these topics with their donors will jeopardize their relationships, or worse, implode an opportunity to secure a significant annual, capital, or programmatic contribution.

Our experiences show that conversations about estate planning and testamentary giving tend to launch (or re-introduce) important giving opportunities and inspire donors to consider sophisticated forms of giving. Nonprofit fundraisers must not assume that their donors always have access to professional wealth management or legal counsel. Indeed, as was the case with Mr. Blum, many wealthy individuals do not regularly think about or evaluate their estate plans, so such conversations with nonprofits may prove incredibly influential. With the Baby Boomer generation aging, now is the time for nonprofits to reconsider their planned giving educational and outreach programs, and offer their constituents the benefits of accessing sound financial planning information and advice.

Educating Constituents about the Benefits of Planned Giving

Generous donors may be looking for ways to distribute their charitable legacies. Planned gifts provide many ways to make charitable contributions that can meet donors’ short and long term financial needs while also making a significant impact on the future of an organization and a community. Plus, planned giving is a donor option that can be geared towards a larger audience, reaching those who may not have the capacity to make a significant outright gift at the present moment.

Talking about planned giving need not be a stressful experience for the organizational leadership, staff, or the donor. Educating stakeholders about their opportunity to “leave a legacy” can be a unique opportunity for dynamic discussions with donors, engaging them in personal conversations about their hopes and dreams for the future of the organization. We recommend that nonprofits consider opening up the dialogue with these specific steps:

  • Educate Your Board, Development Committee members, and professional fundraising team: The range of planned giving options available to donors is vast, and nonprofits of all experience levels would be wise to train leadership and budget for professional development workshops covering specific investment types and estate planning protocols. Remember, it is not necessary for nonprofit staff members be financial experts on every type of planned gift, but they should be knowledgeable enough to present basic options and information to donors who may request it during meetings.
  • Educate Your Donor Base: Offering free, easy-to-understand educational workshops to donors can display the mutual benefits of testamentary giving while also demonstrating responsible donor stewardship. For example, specialized seminars given by legal and financial professionals, possibly drawn from the local Jewish community or the organization’s Boards of Directors are another way to promote planned giving and “sell” the organization because these should be role models themselves and recognized as advocates of the concept. Please note, we always suggest that interested donors speak with a financial or legal advisor to ultimately clarify any number of questions, and recommend that nonprofit fundraisers offer to accompany donors to these meetings.
  • Market Your Planned Giving Program: Donors won’t contribute to a program that they don’t know about! Similar to the kick-off of a capital or endowment campaign, target audiences must be defined and program-specific messaging must be created for an effective planned giving program. Smart development professionals will create a specific marketing plan and stick with it, using customized outreach strategies and engaging in personal meetings with prospective donors to drive the message home.

Remember, legacy giving should be approached as a long-term partnership, where relationships with donors are stewarded until they are ready to make such a special gift. Don’t just jump right into the conversation; rather, pace communications and follow up accordingly.

Creating an Enduring Jewish Legacy with Planned Gifts

Even with all these carefully researched facts and targeted outreach efforts, some donors will still be skeptical of testamentary giving. Many will be unable to visualize the legacy of their lifelong efforts or to feel confident that their wishes will be fulfilled once they are gone. They may look to the nonprofit to offer reassurances, specific financial or investment plans, and additional information nearly every step of the way.

Nonprofit leaders and professionals must be willing to talk about these apprehensions, and be prepared to offer both restricted and unrestricted planned gifts, thereby enabling donors to select the option that most appeals to their interests. Making a commitment to sustain a program long into the future reinforces every donor’s connection with the organizations that they appreciate and support, ensuring their legacy and their memory for decades, if not more.

Most importantly, fundraising professionals for Jewish nonprofits must be able to demonstrate how legacy gifts will enable the organization to advance its mission, expand programs and activities, and continue to advance the Jewish community of tomorrow. Jewish nonprofits have a special responsibility to work with donors to pass along the tradition and history of tzedekah, and demonstrate these important values to the next generation of Jews. By educating stakeholders about the many facets of planned giving, Jewish nonprofit professionals can sustain the important tradition of tzedekah and celebrate it for many years to come.

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, a fundraising consulting firm located in suburban Philadelphia. They are frequent contributors to The EHL Consulting Group is one of only 38 member firms of The Giving Institute. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and nonprofit business practices and strategies. Learn more at

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